The Psychological Fallout: What’s “normal”? How to cope?

Traumatic events cause a wide range of psychological reactions. For example, surveys conducted in the days following the September 11 terrorist attacks suggest that a high percentage of Americans have experienced some symptoms of depression, particularly sleep disturbance and concentration difficulties, as well as increased anxiety. Reactions to traumatic events are influenced by a variety of factors including temperament, learned coping strategies, the presence and intensity of past psychological trauma, and the extent to which the individual had been directly effected by the event.

While there is no "correct" way to feel or respond, its important to remember that over a period or weeks following a traumatic event, you may experience certain, perhaps unfamiliar, "acute stress reactions" that are quite normal, even expected. These include:

Physical Reactions

  • Fatigue/exhaustion
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Underactivity/overactivity
  • Change in appetite
  • Digestive problems
  • Nightmares
  • Muscle tremors/twitches
  • Startle reactions
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle aches
  • Vomiting

Cognitive Reactions

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Memory disturbance
  • Isolation/withdrawal
  • Preoccupation with event
  • Lowered attention span
  • Slowed thinking
  • Problems naming familiar objects/people

Emotional Reactions

  • Overly sensitive
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Emotional numbing
  • Overly sensitive
  • Amnesia for the event
  • Fear/anxiety
  • Self-doubt
  • Hypervigilance
  • Moodiness
  • Anger which may be manifested by: scapegoating, irritability, frustration with bureaucracy, violent fantasies

In addition, a period of mild to moderate depression is sometimes experienced following exposure to a stressful event or tragic loss. Symptoms of depression include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Lethargy/low energy
  • Social withdrawal/isolation
  • Loss of sexual drive
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Persistent sad mood
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Irritability

Again, these are normal reactions, and although painful, are part of the process of recovering from a loss or critical incident stress. While there is little anyone can do to take away these uncomfortable feelings, there are several things you can do to speed up the recovery process.

Things to try:

  1. WITHIN THE FIRST 24 TO 48 HOURS, periods of strenuous physical exercise alternated with relaxation will generally alleviate some of the physical reactions.
  2. Structure your time, keep busy, and keep your life as normal as possible.
  3. You're normal and having normal reactions--don't label yourself crazy.
  4. Talk to people--talk is the most healing medicine.
  5. Be aware of and avoid attempt to numb the pain with use of drugs or alcohol.
  6. Reach out to others. Spend time with people you trust.
  7. Help your peers by sharing feelings and checking out how they are doing.
  8. Give yourself permission to feel rotten, and to share these feelings with others.
  9. Keep a journal--write your way through those sleepless hours.
  10. If these reactions seem particularly intense or debilitating, or persist beyond a few weeks, consider individual stress reactions counseling. To initiate an appointment, contact the Bowdoin College Counseling Service at 725-3145.